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NL Central 2020 Offseason Moves and 2021 Outlook: Pittsburgh Pirates

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cleveland Indians David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

This is the final installment of my 2020 offseason series for the NL Central. I covered the Cubs here, the Brewers here, and the Reds here. Today, I discuss the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a virtual cavalcade of injuries last season and finished in the basement with a 19-41 record.

PLAYERS ALREADY SIGNED FOR 2021

*OF Gregory Polanco—$11 million salary for 2021, which will be the final year of a 5-year extension he signed at the beginning of the regular season in 2016. That deal bought out Polanco’s final pre-arbitration year, all 3 of his arbitration years and his first year of free agency. The club also holds options on the 2022 and 2023 seasons. The option for next year is for $12.5 million with a $3 million buyout.

*LHP Felipe Vazquez is technically a signed player for $7.25 million, as he signed a 4-year deal back in January of 2018 to avoid arbitration. But he has been on the restricted list since September 17th, 2019, following his arrest on an assortment of sex offense charges. He is presently in the can in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania awaiting trial on charges involving unlawful sexual contact with a minor and furnishing pornographic material to a minor. He also faces 21 similar felony charges in Florida and a charge out of St. Louis City for sending a 15-year old girl a photo of him masturbating. The St. Louis City charge is only a state-level misdemeanor. Since he has been on the restricted list, he has not been paid and has not counted against the club’s 40-man roster. Although the club has options on Vazquez for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, I think it’s safe to say his career is over.

OFFSEASON MOVES TO DATE

9/30: Outrighted C Andrew Susac to AAA Indianapolis. Reinstated RHP Edgar Santana from the Restricted List. 40-man full.

Susac was added to the 40-man and active rosters on the final day of the regular season to reward his hard work at the ATS. Jacob Stallings officially had a concussion, and Susac got the start on the final day. He has re-signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training.

Santana was popped last June for testing positive for the PED Boldenone and was given an 80-game suspension. It was unclear at the time of the suspension whether the suspension would carry over to 2021 if less than 80 games were played. Apparently, it has been decided that because the suspended players were out for the full season—albeit a shortened one—they will get full credit. This means that Santana will be available to start 2021 even though he only served 60 days out of an 80-game suspension. He has been considered an important bullpen piece, but he hasn’t pitched since 2018, as he also missed the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

10/1: Designed UT JT Riddle for assignment. Claimed RHP Sean Poppen on outright assignment waivers from the Minnesota Twins. 40-man full.

Riddle was signed to be a depth piece in the infield that could also potentially be used in the outfield. He missed the first two weeks of last season with an abdomen strain, and as the Pirates moved their players all over the board, he got 19 starts across 6 different positions. But as usual, he failed to hit, and while it was only 69 PA, .149/.174/.224 just didn’t cut it. He has always been atrocious with the bat, he’s out of options, and the DH potentially not being in play means the club might not have gotten a chance to get his glove in the lineup.

Poppen was drafted by the Twins in the 19th round of the 2016 draft out of Harvard. He didn’t get past High-A ball until June of 2018, when he was 24 years old. Mostly a starter in the minors, he made his major league debut in 2019 out of the bullpen, but went down with an elbow injury and didn’t pitch at all after early August. He started out 2020 at the ATS for the Twins, was bounced back and forth between the ATS and the major league roster, and pitched 6 games out of the bullpen. He’s shown an ability to keep the ball on the ground in the minors, but had some issues with walks at the upper levels. He’s got 1 minor league option remaining. He’s either a candidate for the major league bullpen or AAA starting depth.

10/5: UT JT Riddle elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment.

10/28: LHP Derek Holland and RHP Keone Kela declared Article XX-B free agents. 40-man at 39.

Kela was already on the 60-day IL, which is why the 40-man count only went down by one. He was supposed to be the club’s closer for 2020, but his season was mostly lost. He came down with COVID and missed summer camp, and then was lost for the season after only 3 games with a forearm injury. Holland was penciled in as the #4 starter to start the year, but was sent to the bullpen after 5 starts and an ERA of 7.62.

10/30: Outrighted OF Kevin Kramer, C Luke Maile, OF Jason Martin, C John Ryan Murphy and RHP Yacksel Rios to AAA Indianapolis. Noted the loss of RHP Nick Tropeano and LHP Brandon Waddell to the Minnesota Twins on outright assignment waiver claims. Claimed C Michael Perez on outright assignment waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays. 40-man at 36.

Of the 5 players the Pirates outrighted, Kramer, Maile and Rios were on the 60-day IL. Kramer missed the whole season recovering from right hip surgery. Maile had signed as a free agent in the offseason, and was set to be Jacob Stalling’s backup at catcher, but missed the season after he was hit by a pitch in a July intrasquad game and broke his finger. Rios had been outrighted to the minors before the season started, then was pressed into service again as injuries struck the Pirates’ pitching staff. After pitching 3 games out of the bullpen, Rios was out for the year with right shoulder inflammation.

When Maile went down, Murphy became Stallings’ backup. Like most members in the union hall of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers, he can’t hit major league pitching, but has an above-average defensive reputation. He got 19 starts behind the plate and slashed .172/.226/.207. This move was predictable since he is out of options and would have been eligible for arbitration. Martin impressed Pirates manager Derek Shelton with his speed and defense. When Gregory Polanco had to start the season on the COVID-19 Related IL, Shelton asked for Martin to replace him even though Martin was not in the regular summer camp, but at the club’s ATS in Altoona. Although Martin made the opening day roster, he didn’t play in the club’s opening series against the Cards and was sent back down shortly thereafter when Polanco came back. As much as the outfield was in flux in 2020, it appears that the front office doesn’t share Shelton’s assessment, as Martin only got 3 starts in CF and that was after the club traded Jarrod Dyson. His offensive ability topped out in AA, as he completely failed to hit AAA pitching in either 2018 or 2019. Martin was declared a Rule 55 minor league free agent in November.

The Pirates claimed Tropeano on waivers from the Yankees in August, and he pitched 7 games for the club, striking out 19 to only 4 walks in 15.2 IP. The Pirates decided to stick with younger arms, and no club seems to want to go to arbitration with Tropeano, as evidenced by the Mets non-tendering him after they claimed him. Waddell was added to the 40-man and active rosters on August 9th, and out of 17 possible games, he only pitched twice before being optioned for the rest of the year. He had been a starter in the minors, but pitched poorly in AAA in 2019.

Perez is now the only other catcher on the Pirates’ 40-man roster. The 28-year old was originally drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 draft by the Diamondbacks out of a Puerto Rico high school. After over 7 years in the organization, the D’Backs traded him to the Rays near the 2018 trade deadline. The Rays called him up the next day when Wilson Ramos went on the shelf, but after about a month on the roster, he was lost for the year with a hamstring strain. Perez cracked the 2019 opening day roster, but went on the IL with an oblique strain in early May, and the club decided to option him when he healed. He was on the roster for two days at the end of July, then didn’t come back until rosters expanded in September. As Mike Zunino struggled to hit in 2020, Perez got more playing time and started 27 games at catcher, which led the club. By the time playoffs came around, however, Zunino was the clear starter, with Perez only starting 2 out of the 20 playoff games. Perez is said to be athletic with a strong throwing arm, and that if he could only be league average at the plate, he could stick as a starter. He hasn’t been able to do that, and only slashed .167/.237/.238 in 93 PAs in 2020. He only has 228 career trips to the plate, but a 67 OPS+. He’s got 2 minor league options left and is not yet eligible for arbitration.

10/31: Declined the $11 million option on RHP Chris Archer, paying him a $250,000 buyout and making him a free agent.

Archer spent the entire 2020 season on the 60-day IL after early June surgery to relieve symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome in his throwing shoulder. The recovery time for that procedure is typically 6 months, but it’s not surprising the Pirates declined the option. Not only is every club looking to cut costs, but the 32-year old Archer had the worst season of his career in 2019 by several metrics, including walk rate and home run rate, with an ERA and FIP over 5.00.

11/1: Activated OF Anthony Alford, 3B Phillip Evans, RHP Michael Feliz, RHP Clay Holmes and RHP Jameson Taillon from the 60-day IL. Designated RHP Nick Burdi and RHP Dovydas Neverauskas for assignment. C Luke Maile, C John Ryan Murphy and RHP Yacksel Rios elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment. 40-man roster full.

The Pirates had 11 players on the 60-day IL once the season was over, which is an absurd amount. The club had Burdi for 3 seasons, first getting him when the Phillies took him in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft and traded him to the club for international bonus pool money. He was only able to pitch 2 games in September because he spent the earlier part of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Burdi opened the 2019 season with the club, but was lost for the year after 11 games with thoracic outlet syndrome. He blew out his elbow again 3 games into the 2020 season and had his 2nd Tommy John surgery in October. Neverauskas was an organizational soldier, who just spent his 11th season with the franchise. He was out of options and had issues with homers allowed, giving up 20 in 80 IP at the major league level over 4 seasons, and a FIP of almost 6.00.

11/3: Released RHP Dovydas Neverauskas.

11/6: Outrighted RHP Nick Burdi to AAA Indianapolis.

11/9: RHP Nick Burdi elected free agency in lieu of the outright assignment.

11/20: Designated UT Jose Osuna and RHP Trevor Williams for assignment. Purchased the contract of RHP Max Kranick from AA Altoona. Purchased the contract of IF Rodolfo Castro from High-A Bradenton. 40-man roster full.

Osuna signed with the organization way back in December of 2009 out of Venezuela when he was 3 days shy of his 17th birthday. He hit reasonably well in the minors and finally made his major league debut in 2017. Over a 4-year period from 2017-2020, he has been a backup and received starts at 1B, 3B, LF, RF, and even some DH last year. While he had a little pop potential, he had a career slash line of .241/.280/.430, and is not good on defense anywhere. Now that Ke’Bryan Hayes has a lock on the 3B job and the DH might not be in play, the club wasn’t interested in continuing on with Osuna, who would have been eligible for arbitration.

Williams was originally a 2nd round draft choice by the Marlins, and was flipped to the Pirates after the 2015 season. After being a September callup in 2016, he has been a rotation mainstay for the past 4 years. He’s never been long on great stuff and has had very low spin rates and middling velocity, relying on command to get him through. He actually logged a career high strikeout rate of 19.4% last season, which gives you an idea what I mean. His other peripherals, such as walk rate and home rate have been trending in the wrong direction the past two years, and he allowed 15 HR in 55.1 IP last year. That might have been a blip, but Williams made $2.825 million last season, and the club is already looking at arbitration hearings with 3 better members of the rotation. They did not want a 4th.

Kranick was the club’s 11th round draft choice in 2016. He’s been mostly a starter in the minors, with a career 19.3% strikeout rate, which is not good, but he doesn’t issue many walks and he keeps the ball in the yard. He hasn’t pitched above the Class A-Advanced level, but the club thought enough of him to put him on it’s initial Club Player Pool for 2020 and he remained at the ATS all year.

Castro is an interesting prospect because he’s a switch-hitting middle infielder with low on-base skills, but power potential. Across both Class A and Class A-Advanced in 2019, for example, he slashed .242/.298/.456 with 19 homers and 122 strikeouts in 461 PA. He signed as a 16-year old undrafted free agent in October 2015, and there’s a possibility he would have started the 2020 season at AA if there had been a minor league season, but instead, he was named to the initial Club Player Pool and stayed at the ATS all year. Although he started out at shortstop, he’s played much more 2nd base lately. If the power grows and he improves his plate discipline, look out. Or, he could become Tyler Greene.

11/23: Released UT Jose Osuna.

11/25: Designated 1B Will Craig for assignment. Outrighted RHP Trevor Williams to AAA Indianapolis. Claimed RHP Ashton Goudeau on outright assignment waivers from the Colorado Rockies. 40-man roster full.

Craig was one of those guys that was positionally limited to 1B, but didn’t have a bat that was even close to playable there. Goudeau was drafted in the 5th round all the way back in 2012 by the Royals out of the same Kansas City community college that Albert Pujols attended. After 7 years in the organization, the Royals traded him to the Mariners at the end of 2018 spring training. He became a Rule 55 minor league free agent after the 2018 season and has spent the last two years in the Colorado Rockies organization. Going into 2019, he had only pitched 20 games at the AAA level, and it wasn’t pretty. The 6’6” righty found himself as a 27-year old, dominating AA hitters in the rotation with the best peripherals of his career and a 2.05 FIP. The club added him to the 40-man after the 2019 season. He made the opening day roster, but was optioned back and forth and allowed 3 homers in 8.1 IP over 4 games out of the bullpen.

11/27: RHP Trevor Williams elected free agency in lieu of the outright assignment.

12/2: Non-tendered RHP Clay Holmes. Outrighted 1B Will Craig to AAA Indianapolis. 40-man at 39. Agreed to 1-year contracts with RHP Michael Feliz ($1 million), RHP Jameson Taillon ($2.25 million) and IF Erik Gonzalez ($1.225 million), avoiding arbitration. 40-man roster at 39.

Holmes only had a little over 2 years of MLB service, and thus was not eligible for arbitration. But he was only able to pitch 1 game in 2020 before going on the IL with a forearm injury and missing the rest of the season. He’s also out of minor league options and had terrible walk rates when he did pitch for the club in 2018 and 2019. He has re-signed to a minor league deal, and must love the Pirates, because he’s been in the organization since they drafted him in the 9th round of the 2011 draft.

Feliz came to the Pirates in the Gerrit Cole trade with the Astros in January of 2018. He was a Super Two going into the 2019 season, making this his 3rd out of 4 arbitration years. He made $1.1 million in 2020, but took a pay cut this time around because he was only able to pitch 3 games before missing the rest of the season with a forearm injury. Feliz has consistently good strikeout rates, but walks more guys than you might like.

The club loves Taillon, who was drafted #2 overall in 2010. He’s had a lot of obstacles to overcome in his career, missing 3 full seasons due to injury. After making it to AAA at the end of 2013, he was out for 2014 with Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2015 with a sports hernia. He had to go on the injured list in 2017 because he required surgery for testicular cancer, but came back to make his first rehab start 3 weeks later. Taillon started off as the club’s #1 starter in 2019, but went on the shelf again after 7 starts. This time, he had flexor tendon surgery on top of a 2nd Tommy John.

As hard as he throws (up to 99 mph), he’s never been an overpowering strikeout pitcher, instead getting by on his command and keeping the ball on the ground. He’s 29-years old now, and has agreed to sign for the same amount he was paid not to pitch last season. The club named him to the 2020 Club Player Pool—despite his being on the 60-day IL—because they wanted him to rehab with the club. He’s expected to be ready for opening day, and he’s an easy guy to root for.

The club acquired Gonzalez in a trade with the Indians before the 2019 season. He’s an interesting case because he had a career high 193 PA in 2020, which was only 60 games. He’s never been able to hit major league pitching, has no patience at the plate, no power, and strikes out way too much. But he’s an above average glove anywhere on the infield, and good enough defensively to start at short, a position at which he actually started the majority of the club’s games in 2020. This was Gonzalez’s 2nd year of arbitration eligibility. He signed for $725,000, and has now been given a $500,000 raise, almost certainly because the club can’t make up it’s mind what to do with Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker and Adam Frazier. He’s going to get every shot to win the starting shortstop job for 2021, and is probably the best defender out of all the options.

12/7: Noted the loss of RHP Aston Goudeau to the Baltimore Orioles on an outright assignment waiver claim. 40-man at 38.

That didn’t last long, and the club might have been expecting to make two Rule 5 draft picks.

12/10: Selected RHP Jose Soriano from the Los Angeles Angels organization in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. Traded cash to the New York Mets for RHP Luis Oviedo, whom the Mets had selected from the Cleveland Indians organization in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. 40-man roster full.

The Pirates took the 22-year old Soriano from the Angels organization with the first choice in the Rule 5 draft. He originally signed in March of 2016 as a 17-year old out of the Dominican Republic. He had Tommy John surgery in February of 2020 and has had serious control issues at every level, where he was mostly in the rotation. Soriano has never pitched above the Class A level, and while he threw close to triple digits in 2019, I don’t know how even the Pirates will be able to keep him on the active roster all year, even in the bullpen, especially if the staff is limited to 13 pitchers. The 21-year old Oviedo, who will turn 22 in May, is another pitcher who has topped out at Class A. He originally signed with the Indians for future service as a 16-year old in July of 2015. He’s also pitched mostly in the rotation, and his strikeout rate cratered from 32.5% in 9 starts in short season ball in 2018 to 18.9% in 21 starts over 2 seasons in A ball. Both pitchers are in the 6’4”, 170 pound range and have room to fill out, but I don’t know what made the Pirates think these guys can skip 3 levels and stick on a major league roster. But you can’t necessarily blame them for trying to find a diamond in the rough.

THE MONTH AHEAD AND 2021 OUTLOOK

The Pirates were going into this offseason with 20 potential arbitration cases! After ditching 7 players and avoiding arbitration with 3, they still have potential hearings with the following 10 players:

*1B Josh Bell, LHP Steven Brault, RHP Kyle Crick, 2B Adam Frazier, RHP Chad Kuhl, 3B Colin Moran, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Richard Rodriguez, C Jacob Stallings and RHP Chris Stratton.

I won’t go through each one of these cases in depth, and will instead highlight the major issues. The major one is actually the emergence of prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, who seized the 3rd base job after the club called him up on September 1st of last year. Moran is not the best defensively at 3B. The club used him mostly a DH last season, and then at 1B when they wanted to rest Bell and have Bell DH. If the DH is not in play, Moran is without a position, and there are hints that if that happens, they might look at him in LF. But the club also has Bryan Reynolds in left, and want to give Anthony Alford and Cole Tucker (a shortstop playing out of position) time in center. Adam Frazier has also played left when the club has moved Kevin Newman from short to 2nd. I wouldn’t be surprised if the club isn’t looking to trade Frazier, Moran or both. Moran is the only one who helped his trade value by having an above average year at the plate, doing it mostly as a DH with an increased home run rate.

Bell had an awful year offensively, but 2020 stats are inadmissible at the hearing, and he’ll want a raise on his $4.8 million salary. Brault and Kuhl are both rotation possibilities, with Musgrove being the #1 starter. Crick’s control has evaporated the past two seasons, and he missed most of last season with a lat strain. Rodriguez was one of the club’s best and most reliable relievers last season and will likely at least double his money. Stratton was another reliable reliever with a career-high strikeout rate. Stallings will be a Super Two and in line for a monster raise.

The Pirates had a preposterous number of injuries last year with their pitching. They’ve lost their best relievers over the past couple of years to either arrest, PED suspension or injury and ineffectiveness. They now have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster, with only relievers Michael Feliz, Carlson Fulmer and Nik Turley out of options. If everyone stays healthy and there’s a normal minor league season, the club is in a position to weather the storm of nursing pitchers back to a normal innings load with plenty of young pitching options. If Taillon comes back to form, the club could have a potent 1-2 punch in the rotation with Taillon and Musgrove at the top, and Kuhl and Brault and either Mitch Keller or JT Brubaker bringing up the rear.

The club needs to figure out what they want to do at shortstop. Kevin Newman is not real good on defense, although he did have a nice offensive season in 2019. The club has been farting around with trying to make Cole Tucker a center fielder, despite the fact that he never played outfield at all before last season. A shortstop by trade, he ended up getting a plurality of the starts in center field and no starts in the infield. As you can imagine, his defense in the outfield was not good, and he’s never hit major league pitching. It’s nice to have versatility, but a super-sub should at least be able to hit sometimes and play decent defense. Tucker should probably be left to be a backup shortstop and that’s it. If Erik Gonzalez wins the job, there may not be room enough on the club to carry Newman, Tucker and Adam Frazier. At this point, the only players I can think of as having a starting job in the field right now are Bryan Reynolds in either left or center, Josh Bell at 1B, Ke’Bryan Hayes at 3B, Gregory Polanco in RF and Jacob Stallings at catcher. The other positions are up for grabs. They have no proven center fielder.

The 2021 season couldn’t go any worse for the Pirates than it has the last couple of seasons. They might actually surprise some people, especially with their pitching, if they just have a year of normal health. Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco need to return to form offensively for this club to get anything done on offense, and Ke’Bryan Hayes needs to live up to his promise. Even if all that happens, the Pirates won’t win the division in 2021, but they could be something more than just a doormat.